Gin O’Clock – Part Sixty Seven

The ginaissance is so competitive these days that any gin hoping to make a splash must have a back story. Some seem to be the real McCoy but others have more than a little hint of the fevered brain of a marketing wallah about them. It’s probably best to take them with a pinch of salt or perhaps a slice of lemon and a dash of tonic. But one that seems to be the real deal is the one relating to Xoriguer Mahón Gin, a bottle of which I picked up in Alicante airport’s duty-free shop, as you do.

From 1708 to 1802 the island of Menorca, one of the Balearics in the western Mediterranean, and, specifically, its capital, Mahón was a regular stopping off point for British soldiers and sailors as they moved from Blighty to one of the far-flung parts of the Empire or vice versa. The troops and matelots, after being cooped up in confined quarters for so long, liked to stretch their legs and quench their thirst. One of the tipples that they kept asking for was gin. Rather than go to the cost and trouble of importing gins, the locals decided to have a go at distilling their own. The result was this gin, which was so popular, that when the military disappeared the locals continued distilling it for their own use.

What first caught my eye was the bottle. It is a bottle-green colour and shaped like a wine bottle with a dinky handle at the base of the neck. The top is a red screw ap. The front of the label has a picture, more accurately a drawing, of a windmill behind some agricultural buildings and the rear bears a description in Spanish which roughly translates as “made by complete distillation with juniper berries and wine alcohol, it offers a pleasant taste and represents the pride of an ancient tradition.” I may be doing the marketese an injustice, my Spanish is not that good, but I think you get the drift.

The two points to note are that it is juniper led, always a firm tick in the box for me, and that the base spirit is distilled from grapes, not so much of a tick from me but it seems to be the way with gins distilled in foreign parts. That, it seems, is a peculiarity of Xoriguer because to qualify as Mahón Gin any form of alcohol base, be it from grape, potato, sugar beet or wheat, will do. The next essential ingredient is juniper berries which must have an oil by weight content of between seven and nine per cent. The third component is distilled drinking water. And that’s it. No other aromas or extracts can be added.

What is absolutely essential, and a point the locals get steamed up about, is that the spirit together with the junipers are distilled in a copper still over a wood fire. Once distillation has been completed to their satisfaction, the hooch is filtered off. At an ABV of 38% it is at the lighter end of the gin strength spectrum but what it lacks in punch it makes up for in taste.

To the nose it is juniper heavy and there is very little else coming through, perhaps unsurprisingly given the proscriptions on the ingredients. To the taste it is incredibly thick and luscious, you almost get a juniper rush but there are some elements of citrus in there, admittedly faint but even these jaundiced taste buds detected it. The aftertaste is long and dry, peppery and a lingering taste of juniper.

If you love a juniper-heavy gin, and I do, check this one out. Ditch the stuffed donkey and sombrero and get yourself a bottle.

Until the next time, cheers!

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Gin O’Clock – Part Sixty Six

The vigour of the ginaissance is such that distillers you normally associate with other spirits are getting in on the act. I have discussed before the difference in time and cost between distilling gin and a spirit like whisky. The latter is a long-term project requiring considerable investment, time and storage before the spirit is put on to the market. Gin offers the opportunity for a much more immediate return.

It is always a pleasure to see a new gin nestling on the shelves of our local Waitrose and a bottle of Wildcat Gin proved too much of a temptation to pass up. It is distilled by Whyte & Mackay, a name normally associated with whisky and proof positive of my opening point.

I normally spend some time describing the bottle and this one is an absolute stunner, one to keep on the shelf even if it is devoid of content. It is tall, thin and round with a fluted extended neck and a n artificial cork. As well as the shape what is also stunning is the labelling. There is a majestic golden emblem with a cat astride a key with a rubric assuring us that it is “distilled with distinction.” Below the labelling, embossed in the glass of the bottle is the legend, “knock once, knock twice, knock thrice.

The clue to what all this is about is provided at the back of the bottle with a quotation attributed to Captain Dudley Bradstreet, from 1739; “it occurred to me to venture upon Trading in Gin, the people being clamorous for their beloved Liquor on account of its prohibition by Act of Parliament. I secured Premises and nailed the Sign of a Cat to my Window. Those with Knowledge of the Secret could Knock Thrice, Placing money in the Cat’s mouth to receive a generous Measure of Gin. This Scheme of Pass was a great Success, netting me Considerable Fortune.

No such subterfuge is required today but it is a charming story that takes us back to the days when Government tried to put the brakes on gin consumption. I went into more detail when I was discussing the origins of Old Tom Gin a while back https://wp.me/p2EWYd-227

As well as an insight into the history of gin, the label gives us an insight into a botanical I had not come across before; “London Dry Gin with Cat’s Claw Botanical”. For the uninitiated, that included me before I bought this bottle, what we are talking about is Uncaria tomentosa, a woody vine to be found in Central and South America. It gets its name from its claw-shaped thorns. Notwithstanding the thorns, its bark is said to have medicinal properties.

Having got top marks from me for the quality of the design of the bottle and the informative nature of the labelling, how does it rank on taste? Uncorking the bottle, the aroma is a reassuring mix of juniper with hints of citrus, spice and pepper. To the mouth it is a smooth spirit, refreshing with a nice blend of juniper and spice leading on to the citrus elements. It made for a well-balanced and crisp drink. The aftertaste is pleasant and long-lasting, with a spicy citrus again to the fore. With a premium tonic it was wonderfully moreish. I can see this bottle disappearing quickly.

It weighs in at a respectable 41.5% ABV and whilst Whyte and Mackay are a little circumspect in identifying all ten botanicals in the mix there is definitely liquorice root, coriander, angelica and citrus to accompany the juniper and cat’s claw. After some of the concoctions I have reviewed recently, a well-produced juniper-led gin was just what the doctor ordered.

Until the next time, cheers!

Gin O’Clock – Part Sixty Five

If nothing else the booming ginaissance has thrown the gauntlet down to enterprising distillers to come up with ever-more imaginative concoctions to tempt and titivate the taste buds of the gin aficionados.

I have tried a few gins which use a grape rather than neutral grain spirit as their base. To my taste this gives a rather sharp, if not astringent, complexion to the drink, not unpleasant but different and not one you would readily associate with a traditional gin. Inevitably, the next step is to concoct a gin and wine hybrid. A number of these drinks, I hesitate to call them gins, have emerged in the last few months in a concerted attempt to ensnare oenophiles into the world of gin. One such is Sorgin Gin which can be found on the shelves of your local Aldi supermarket.

This is the brainchild of French wine growers and vineyard owners, Sabine Jaren and Francois Lurton. The starting point is a distillate made from Sauvignon grapes from Gascony in the south-west of France. The name is rather clever, the first syllable tipping its chapeau to the variety of grape used, but, in fact, the disyllabic word is Basque for a sorceress or witch, proof positive, if you needed it, that you can improve your knowledge by drinking.

What will cause the hardened gin enthusiast to blanche, if not recoil in horror, is what is done to the juniper. It is not added in its pure form but as a distillate so that its notes do not overpower the subtler fragrances of the Sauvignon Blanc. But for me that is enough to discount it as a gin and to put it into the novelty drink category.

To complete the list of ingredients, there is to be found grapefruit zest, lemon, violets, gorse, lime zest, broom, and redcurrant buds.

The bottle is almost rectangular in shape with a neck leading up to a coppery-coloured screwcap. The witch astride her broomstick is embossed in a coppery colour at the front of the bottle. The use of green for the verbiage on the reverse of the bottle renders it almost illegible, at least when the bottle is full and when you need the information most. At least the rubric on the neck is easy to read and promises that “Sauvignon Blanc grapes and selected botanicals give Sorgin unique complexity and character.”

Despite there being so much wrong with this product on so many levels, it was a very pleasant drink. Removing the cap released an aroma where citrus, grape and juniper fought for prominence. None of them overpowered the others and hinted that the promise of a complex drink may be fulfilled. It was smooth to the taste with a pleasing blend of fruit, grape and more floral tones. The violet and juniper seemed to compliment each other and there was a long, lingering aftertaste.

Whether a wine drinker or a hardened gin drinker would be won over by its charms is difficult to tell. At 43% ABV and competitively priced, as Aldi gins are, it is worth a look at, one to bring out as a conversation piece to kick an evening’s drinking off. But to market it as a gin is a bit of a stretch and confirms the need for some long-overdue policing of what can be so described. I’m sure that the days of hybrids will be numbered but it is at least more pleasant to drink than some of the outlandish flavoured gins that continue to spring up.

Gin O’Clock – Part Sixty Four

You will be pleased to know that I have got off my soap box, had a lie down, consumed a few stiff G&Ts and am now ready to continue my exploration of the ginaissance.

The budget supermarket, Aldi, is continuing to make inroads into what was once the preserve of the four or five big supermarket chains. What they lack in choice and comfort, they more than make up for in price and when times are hard, every penny counts. They have made a concerted attempt to grab a slice of the growing gin market and one of their range that took my eye and found its way into my shopping trolley was Topaz Blue London Dry Gin. At £13.99 for a 70 cl bottle, it is a snip.

 

The first thing to say is that the bottle bears some resemblance to that of the more expensive Bombay Sapphire. Surely the use of the name of a precious stone is just too much of a coincidence? The script on the label and the shape of the image at the front of the bottle also look very similar from afar. And then there is the bluish hue to the bottle, given by the blue backing of the labelling in the Aldi product’s case rather than the colour of its glass. But, to be fair, that is where the similarities end.

The bottle is tall and slim and quite tactile. For those of us who are all fingers and thumbs, it is easy to manoeuvre with one hand, something you often cannot say about the fatter, more elaborate bottles used by the more expensive gin makers. The cap is a rather flimsy, foil affair in dark blue.

The labelling is quite informative as to what the gin is all about, boasting that it is the result of “superior small batch distillation.” Comforting to know, I’m sure. It goes on to proclaim that “this superior gin is a testament to the passion and artistry of our distiller, infusing wild botanicals and select fruits for an earthy, spicy, fruit driven, full bodied flavour.” Having blown smoke up the distiller’s posterior, the bottle omits to tell us who it might be. We must rest in the knowledge they know who they are.

The reverse of the bottle helpfully lists the botanicals to be found within, together with a little pictogram of each so you can see what they look like in their natural state. They are juniper, coriander, angelica, almond, lemon peel, cassia, orange peel, liquorice, orris and cinnamon. A solid selection which holds out the promise of a juniper-led, conventional London dry gin.

Unscrewing the top, the aroma is initially of juniper and coriander with spice and citrus elements coming through. Compared with some gins the nose is not as strong as I would have expected. That feeling is compounded when I took a sip. It seemed rather light-bodied, as though something was missing. The initial sensation was of juniper, quite spicy and slightly sour, and then the spices and citrus elements broke through, ending with a spicy aftertaste. Perhaps this is where the liquorice came in to play.

I just felt that it was a little undercooked, promising more than it could actually deliver and one that would probably not be suitable to drink neat. With a decent tonic, I found it much more palatable and at 40% ABV, it made for a pleasant early evening drink.

Of course, that is only my opinion. Better judges than I awarded it a gold medal at the Spirits Business Gin Masters last year, after a blind tasting. Try for yourself.

Until the next time, cheers!

Gin O’Clock – Part Sixty Three

The ginaissance still shows no sign of running out of steam. Far from it.

Figures released recently by HMRC showed that export sales of British gins had doubled in value since 2010, reaching the heady height of £612 million in 2018. Meanwhile in Blighty, we consumed 66 million bottles of gin, a 41% increase on 2017.

Impressive statistics but, as I noted a few weeks ago, there is a discernible attempt to exercise some control of what is rapidly resembling the Wild West. Some companies have been playing fast and loose with what were the commonly held tenets of the gin industry, not least what a gin is.

The two key articles of faith, if I can put it that way, are that the spirit has an ABV of 37.5% or more and that it is juniper-led. The Gin Guild, which seems to be emerging as the self-proclaimed gatekeeper of all matters gin, puts it more succinctly on their website, recognising only “gin styles produced by distilling ethyl alcohol in stills traditionally used for gin, in the presence of juniper berries and other botanicals – provided that the juniper taste is predominant.” You can’t say fairer than that.

So, where does this leave the so-called gin liqueurs? The few that I have tasted have been fruit-heavy, sweet and with low ABVs, often as low as 18%. On so many levels, they fail the gin test. At best they can only be described as a juniper flavoured drink. The only reason that gin is mentioned on their labelling is that is so on trend that gullible consumers are likely to be attracted to it. There is a very strong case for forcing them to remove their misleading labelling. According to press reports, Nicholas Cook, director-general of the Gin Guild, has already reported a number of these liqueurs to Trading Standards. I shall be interested to see what they do, if anything.

The undoubted success story of 2018 has been the growth of coloured and flavoured gins, which now make up around 20% of all gin sales in the UK, contributing to around a half of the overall increase in gin sales in 2018. Pink gins make up around 75% of the increase in flavoured gins alone. Personally, I feel they are too sweet for my palate and on occasion the distinctive taste of juniper is overwhelmed. And, once more, it is hard to make a case for some to be included within the classic definition of a gin. Another area for Trading Standards to keep an eye on, methinks.

I am not arguing that there is no place for these drinks, just that they are labelled responsibly so that the consumer knows exactly what they are getting. That is not too much to ask, surely.

One development I will watch with interest is the launch and development of the Gin Guild flavour guidance or Gin-Note. As bottles of premium gin are expensive, it pays to do a little research before making a purchase. An impulse buy based on the shape of the bottle or the marketeer-ese description on the labelling can be the precursor to an expensive mistake. The idea behind the Gin-Note is that it gives a standard flavour summary of each gin signed up to the scheme.

There are three elements to the Gin-Note – a visual representation of the general characteristics of the gin, a 20-word brand supplied description of the gin and two words, think tags, drawn from a pre-determined list which the supplier thinks best fits or describes their hooch. Provided that there is sufficient buy-in from the suppliers and that the standards are applied consistently and are broad enough to encompass most of the wide variety of tastes and flavours of true gins, it should be a boon to the consumer.

Until the next time, cheers!

Gin O’Clock – Part Sixty Two

Is Camberley in Scotland?

I only ask the question because I thought that Aldi’s tie up with Eden Mill distillery was limited to Scottish stores. But, lo and behold, there nestling in the spirits section of our local store is a bottle of Eden Mill Botanical Project Traditional Batch Gin. Perhaps the ginaissance has played havoc with the traditional concepts of geography.

And a lovely bottle it is too. It is a stoneware bottle with one of those weird metal swing top contraptions, similar to those found on a Grolsch lager bottle, that force the cap down and which you have to lift up to open. A word of caution, mine fell apart after the second time I used it. If you like those fiendish Japanese metal puzzles, you will easily put it back together again.

The labelling is in green, presumably to emphasise the botanicals in the mix. Unusually for a gin to be found in Aldi, the rear of the bottle is quite helpful in describing what you might encounter inside. Although it only comes in a 50cl bottle, so it is relatively expensive, at £19.99, on an Aldi gin price spectrum when compared to its 70cl rivals, any disappointment on that score is more than made up by its ABV of 43%.

Eden Mill operates out of St Andrew’s in Fife, better known for being the spiritual home of golf than the producer of spirits. But the team are setting out to change that. Originally a brewery, it branched out to produce gins and whisky in 2014. They use pot stills for distilling their gin, bringing in the neutral grain spirit which makes up the base.

There are a number of gins that have come from The Eden Mill distillery, principally Original, Oak Gin, Sea Buckthorn Gin, Love Gin and Golf Gin. The Botanical Project Gins that can be found in Aldi include Chilli and Ginger and Blueberry and Vanilla, as well as the Original which, given my dislike of weirdly flavoured gins, I considered the safest to try.

The botanical of note in the mix is caraway seed. This is not the first time I have encountered it in a gin, it is one of the botanicals in Boodles’ British Gin London Dry. Used extensively in European and Mediterranean cooking, the caraway seeds, when roasted gently under a low flame and then ground, provide a warm, sweet, and slightly peppery flavour. Tradition has it that it was used to ward off witches as well as freshening your breath, perhaps one and the same function, and others swear by its medicinal properties to counter digestive problems. I’m always looking for an excuse to drink gin and perhaps I’ve found another one.

The mix in this gin also includes lavender, mint and liquorice. To the nose the juniper is less prominent than I would have liked but the spices and pepper come through loud and clear. To the taste it is smoother and better balanced than I had anticipated with the liquorice and peppers coming to the fore and creating a lingering aftertaste. Despite not being able to abide liquorice in its raw state I found it fine as an ingredient in this gin. And I haven’t had indigestion since.

Until the next time, cheers!

Gin O’Clock – Part Sixty One

Continuing my exploration of Aldi’s take on the ginaissance, the next gin I put in my trolley was Mason’s G12 Gin. Retailing at £24.99 it is at the premium end of the gins on the supermarket’s shelves but the price is still attractive enough to warrant me taking a punt on it.

In 2013 Karl and Cathy Mason established what was then, and may be now for all I know, the first gin distillery in North Yorkshire in the beautiful town of Bedale. Their established brands are Mason’s Yorkshire Dry Gin and two variants, one flavoured with tea and the other with lavender. I tasted the former on New Year’s Eve when I was, shall we say, one over the eight and so I need to a more sober, considered view of their main product.

G12 is a more recent addition to their range and, as far as I can deduce, it is not tied exclusively to Aldi. It takes its name from the fact that it is the product of the twelfth recipe that the distillers tried. They are, after all, a very prosaic lot up in Yorkshire. The blurb suggests that they consider it to be a contemporary gin rather than one from a traditional gin stable. I started to shudder at this point but providing it was juniper led, that would be fine.

Aesthetically, the bottle sticks out like a sore thumb on the shelf, with its vibrant green colour. Think lime and you will get the picture. The white lettering on the front of the bottle tells me that it is a “botanically rich dry gin with bursts of citrus fruit and hints of fresh Mediterranean herbs.” The Mason’s logo is towards the bottom and the Yorkshire rose is embossed in the glass towards the neck.

The stopper, artificial cork, fits tightly to the neck of the bottle and makes a satisfying plopping noise when it is removed. I do like a good plop. The aroma released is complex and pleasing, with the piny smell of juniper to the fore before the more effervescent lime comes into play. There is a distinct freshness to the smell which presumably comes from the herbs.

To the taste the first hit is from the juniper and that stays in the mouth before it is joined by zesty citrus notes and a little sharpness. Then the citrus elements seem to subside and a more refreshing, herbal taste can be detected. The aftertaste is warm and peppery and lingers. With a mixer the gin seemed to louche and for me it was not as smooth or balanced as I had expected. It seems to operate in distinct phases rather than being one complete complex taste. But, pleasingly for a contemporary style gin, it has a solid and detectable juniper base.

I did try to detect precisely what was in the mix and my best guess is; juniper, coriander, basil, lemon and lime peels, cinnamon and black pepper. There may be more botanicals in the mix, the distillers are rather coy on that point, but they do admit to sweet basil.

For me, this is a gin for a warm summer evening. It is pleasant, refreshing and at the right time and place could be moreish. A cold February day in England, when I first sampled it, is probably not the ideal time to try it.

Until the next time, cheers!